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Returnee Spotlight: How Edmund Poku Left Investment Banking On Wall Street To Start A Multi-million Dollar Cocoa Business

Edmund Poku, African Entrepreneur and founder of Niche Cocoa
Edmund Poku founder of Niche Cocoa. (Photo credit: RisingAfrica.com)

If you are a chocolate lover, you will agree that it does wonders to mood. In fact, the award-winning author Wayne Gerard Trotman said, ‘As long as there is chocolate, there will be happiness’. The global chocolate industry was worth $130 billion in 2019. Sadly, statistics show that in Africa, small-scale cocoa producers live in poverty. This is because they only make on average $5 per day.

However, there is light at the end of the tunnel. An African entrepreneur, Edmund Poku, is on track to change the narrative. Today, we zoom in on his departure from a lucrative career in the United States and the formation of a successful business in Ghana.

Edmund Poku’s Life before Entrepreneurship

Prior to finding Niche Cocoa Industry Limited, he attended university in the United States and bagged a Master’s degree in Engineering Management from Dartmouth College. Poku did his MBA at Columbia Business School. When he submitted his thesis, a supervisor said that based on his research, Poku could successfully start a cocoa processing company.

Employment on Wall Street

After completing his MBA, Poku did not immediately return home. He went on to work as a manager at the American retailer ‘The Home Depot’. Thereafter he took a position as an investment banker at the Goldman Sachs Group in New York. Poku relates to Business World Ghana what finally led to his return,

“I was working at Wall Street in the early 2000s; I came back from work around 3 am and had to go back to work around 5 am and I kept thinking how long can I continue doing this? So I packed and came to Ghana.”

The Challenges of Establishing Niche Cocoa

Poku faced several challenges when he started. For example, at that time only the government and a few multinationals were processing cocoa. The prevailing opinion was that an individual could not operate a processing business as the cost was prohibitive. Also, he had to follow a lengthy procedure to obtain a permit to purchase cocoa beans from the government. Also, the company did not have access to the consumer market. Hence, they had to transact through third parties.

Edmund Poku Ventures into Cocoa Processing

However, Poku succeeded in securing financing for his project and started a company known as Commodities Processing Industry Limited (CPI). In 2011 the brand name changed to Niche Cocoa. This cocoa processing company exports semi-finished cocoa products worldwide. The products include cocoa liquor, cocoa powder, cocoa butter, and other ingredients. These are necessary for the bakery, chocolate, and confectionery industries. Niche Cocoa has a processing capacity of 90,000 metric tons and a turnover of $120 million per year.

The business is fully certified and has attained Fair Trade, Ghana Standards Authority (GSA), Kosher, Halal, and FDA approvals. In 2013, 2014, and 2015, Niche Cocoa was the proud recipient of the Presidential National Award for Exporter of the year.

The MD of Niche Cocoa receiving an Award
Edmund Poku receiving the Cocoa Entrepreneur award in 2019 (Photo credit: Ghana Cocoa Awards Facebook)

How the move from Agriculture to Agribusiness benefits the Smallholders

For decades, cocoa beans have been exported overseas yielding little benefit to the producers. One way to bring about a change is to increase the percentage of finished products that are exported to the world markets. This generates a higher income than raw products. Edmund Poku through Niche Cocoa is spearheading the move toward expanding the range of activities associated with cocoa production.

In other words, if there is local processing of cocoa from beans to the finished product, this will result in excellent value for the population. For example, it will create job opportunities and the development of technical know-how locally. Niche Chocolates aims to increase the percentage of the finished products they generate from 3% to 10% by the end of the year.

The Establishment of Niche Cocoa Chocolates

Although Ghana is the world’s second-biggest cocoa producer, the annual chocolate consumption is only 0.5kgs per person. Subsequently, it is Niche Cocoa’s goal to increase cocoa consumption in Ghana. Therefore, in 2017, they began the production of chocolate for both the local as well as international markets.

Niche Cocoa's Taste of Ghana
Niche Cocoa’s Taste of Ghana (Photo Credit: Niche Cocoa Facebook)

What makes Niche Chocolate different from other products on the market?

Produced under the tagline ‘Taste of Ghana’, the varieties produced include dark chocolate and milk chocolate in flavors such as strawberry, mango, lime, and honey. The design of the packs is unique. It includes a gold logo and Adinkra symbol that reflects Ghana’s culture and heritage. The company’s website describes the taste of the milk chocolate as ‘Creamy milk chocolate with rich caramel notes and a strong cocoa flavor’. Other products in the pipeline include powders, spreads, and drinks.

Business Lessons from Edmund’s Journey to Success

No entrepreneur becomes a success overnight. It often takes years of dormancy or overcoming multiple failure hurdles to find the winning notes. When we read about the story of entrepreneurs, we should pay attention to the lessons we can learn from their success journey. There are pertinent points that stand out in Edmund  Poku’s journey. They are as follows;

  • In-depth business research is critical for informed and wise decision making
  • An entrepreneur needs to have an open mind and be adaptable when venturing into uncharted territory
  • Innovation is necessary to adapt to the local environment
  • Realistic goals are needed to allow time until the capacity allows for expansion
  • Passion is what will help you overcome setbacks
Taste of Ghana
Niche Cocoa’s ‘Taste of Ghana’ (Photo credit: Twitter @nichechocolate)

Chocolate and Intra-Market Trading in Africa

Although Africa’s chocolate consumption is on the increase, there is still a lack of demand on the continent compared to markets such as the United Kingdom, United States, and Switzerland. In these countries, the annual consumption ranges from 4 to 12kg per capita. However, the growing domestic markets in the region present lucrative business opportunities. Hence there is room for more African entrepreneurs in the chocolate industry.

The increase in chocolate production will create other business opportunities for countries in Africa. For example, it will lead to growth in the dairy and sugar production sectors. Nations like Madagascar that produce fragrant spices like saffron and vanilla will benefit, and Guinea Bissau will find a new market for its Cashews.

 Conclusion

The African entrepreneur Edmund Poku made a bold move when he abandoned Wall Street to head back home. His journey has been a productive one. In July 2020, he announced plans to support Ghana’s School feeding program by providing chocolate milk to 5.5 million pupils. This treat will be enjoyed for 100 school days per year. Hence, Niche Cocoa has accomplished more than benefiting the cocoa industry. Have you tried any Niche Cocoa chocolate products before? Can they compete with international products? Let us know your thoughts in the comment box below.

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